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Penn cross country is coming off a historic level of success, but the Quakers will need to rely on new faces for a repeat of that success.

Credit: Ilana Wurman

Penn cross country has never been more successful than it was in 2016. But while the team has entirely new leaders this season, the mindset remains the same: the Quakers are the team to beat in the Ivy League.

Last fall, the men’s cross country team, led by then-seniors Nick Tuck and Brendan Shearn, broke a 43 year-long drought for the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships — and it wasn't even close. The gap between the Quakers and Princeton, the runners-up, was a decisive 13 points, as five of the top 12 finishers donned the Red and Blue. The problem for the 2017 team is that three of those five received their diplomas this past May. Coach Steve Dolan acknowledged the challenges that the team would face this year, but remained optimistic about the younger members of the team.

“It’s definitely a different team… there will definitely be new people that are going to have to lead the charge. But it’s always exciting to have new people join the team,” Dolan said.

After years of languishing toward the bottom half of the Ivy League, the women’s cross country made a serious breakthrough in 2016. The now-graduated trio of Clarissa Whiting, her twin sister Cleo Whiting and Ashley Montgomery propelled the team to levels of success seldom reached in program history. The team's third-place finish at Heps was the team’s best performance since 2006, and, perhaps more remarkably, the team made its first-ever appearance in the NCAA Championship, placing twenty-fourth — highest among the Ivy League schools participating, thanks in large part to Montgomery’s eighth-place finish. Obviously, graduating is a natural part of the life of a college sports team, which is why senior captain Abby Hong is excited rather than anxious about the new look of the women’s team.

“It’s definitely a big loss for us….but I think we’re all excited coming into this season with a different face in the front of the team,” Hong said. “It’s going to be a much more collective effort this year. Instead of relying on a couple of people who can finish out in front….we’re going to focus on having the whole team come together.”

Integrating the new faces is crucial to both teams’ potential success this year, and because of a team trip to the Poconos before NSO, the groups have already started creating chemistry. Hong recalled that the runs would “fly by so much faster” when surrounded by her teammates.

The new faces are not just limited to the athletes. Chelsea France will start as an assistant coach after a highly successful stint as an assistant at George Washington University, where she helped lead the team to three Atlantic 10 conference championships.

The first test that the men and women face this fall is this Saturday’s Rider Invitational in Pennington, NJ. And after both teams got off to near-identical starts last season, winning their first two meets, and placing in the top-five in the third, the early momentum that these results created greatly contributed to the success the teams would find later in the season. Hong described the early, more local meets as being instrumental in building confidence for the more consequential meets in the season’s latter days. 

“[The Rider Invitational] is a good place for everyone to get their feet wet… it’s a chance for the team to practice running together, get comfortable racing with a whole bunch of teammates around, and get that momentum going forward,” she said.

So while Penn cross country might not have all of the same key runners as last year, this weekend could be the start of another successful season.